Four Duluth city councilors co-signed and sent a letter to Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Tuesday afternoon denouncing the company's recent decision to sharply tighten the supply of popular new-release e-books available at public libraries across the nation.

In November, the New York-based publisher announced that it would sell each library system no more than one copy of any new work in e-book format within eight weeks of a title's release. In a memo, Macmillan CEO John Sargent explained that the company was adopting this new policy "in response to our growing fears that library lending was cannibalizing sales."

He cited analysis that he said showed: "For Macmillan, 45% of the e-book reads in the U.S. are now being borrowed for free from libraries. And that number is still growing rapidly."

But outgoing Duluth City Council President Noah Hobbs notes that people who use libraries also have been shown to be more likely to purchase books in print or electronic form, and he pointed out that libraries are among publishers' best customers.

Duluth Public Library Manager Carla Powers said: "Libraries pay significantly more for e-books than private consumers do. And that's in contrast to printed books, where libraries are often able to get a discount from our book vendors."

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Powers said even though libraries pay a premium for e-books, their use of the materials is constrained as well. They must be treated like printed materials, in that each e-book may be used by only one library patron at a time, despite the fact that it would be technically possible to make them more widely accessible. Often publishers also stipulate that an e-book cannot be distributed more than 26 times before it must be repurchased — the thought being that a printed version of the text would likely require replacement due to wear and tear after passing through as many hands.

Hobbs warned that depriving libraries of desired e-book titles could have long-term consequences.

"This runs the risk of making libraries into a secondhand source of reading materials, where they may or may not have what you want. And the concern is that you're now pushing library users into a different parallel than other consumers," he said.

The open letter sent to Sargent by councilors Hobbs, Gary Anderson, Renee Van Nett and Arik Forsman stated: "Our concern is that your decision to place a two-month embargo on e-books to libraries comes at the expense of the public good and our ability to provide for our library patrons."

Hobbs said the policy raises questions of economic and social equity. He noted that due to their light weight and portability, e-books have proven especially popular with people who have disabilities. The ability to change the size of text and adjust the backlighting also can make them easier on the eyes for people with vision problems, Powers said.

Macmillan is one of what's been called the nation's "big five" publishers, and Hobbs predicted others in the industry will closely watch what effect its new e-book policies will have on profits.

"If this is more lucrative for publishing companies, I guess I have little faith that they would not take that route as well. And it's unfortunate that it's at the expense of the public good of books being democratically and easily accessible to anyone," he said.

Macmillan's policy fails to differentiate between large and small library systems, and while there are much larger systems in the nation than the Arrowhead Library System of which Duluth is a part, Powers said it would create a real scarcity of materials in the Northland. One copy of any new e-book would be available from Macmillan to share between 27 libraries — from Duluth to Grand Rapids to Virginia.

"It makes no sense," Powers said.

The American Library Association has been circulating a petition against Macmillan's restrictions on sales of e-books to libraries — at ala.org/advocacy/ebooksforall-petition — and more than 235,000 people have signed it so far. In late January, Sargent is likely to face a tough audience when he is slated to appear before association members at a national conference in Philadelphia.

No one from Macmillan responded to a News Tribune request for comment Tuesday morning, but in a recent letter to ALA members, Sargent wrote: "We are not trying to hurt libraries; we are trying to balance the needs of the system in a new and complex world. We believe windowing for eight weeks is the best way to do that. I am the first to admit we may be wrong. But we need to try to address this issue."